Fear and Awe at Hafod

The concept of the Picturesque was to stir deep feelings in the visitor.  His or her emotions should be stirred not only by the beautiful but by the sublime.  A therapeutic shot of terror, engendered by a dizzy drop, a roaring cascade, or a dark rock-cut tunnel or cave were among the elements of a satisfactory Picturesque Landscape.  Thomas Johnes of Hafod did his best to supply these scary elements, most notably with the precipitous narrow contoured path of the Gentleman’s walk to the south of the river, and the cascade cavern where the visitor passes, crouching, into almost total darkness in a rock tunnel before turning a slight corner and being confronted with a roaring waterfall blocking his path.

Other elements were smooth, gentle and naturalistic.  Such was the Alpine Meadow by the river side, and the careful gradients of the Lady’s Walk through the woods.  Equal smoothness of contour defines the old carriage drive which brought the visitor from London past Cwmystwyth and across a stone bridge over the Nant Peiran.  We tend to forget that the early roadmaps, the Britannia and Ogilvy atlases (strip maps similar in concept to the bespoke navigation of a modern  sat nav) provide annotated routes of which the very first in the collection takes the traveller from London to Aberystwyth, passing close by the Hafod estate.

It is this old bridge, broken and impassible for many decades which is the latest object of careful re-instatement by The Hafod Trust.  The wooden span was collapsed by the 1980s and as the stream tore away the fallen timbers there remained the tall abutments of the bridge, adjoined by two handsome beech trees framing an alarming chasm.  Many a dog has hastened enthusiastically along the old carriage drive to pull up suddenly at the very edge. The new bridge span is of timber, echoing the 19th century remains, but much narrower, its purpose to provide access for walkers and for the more intrepid wheelchair user. Completed in November by TTS Wales of Tregaron, it already blends quietly into the scenery.

The decaying Pont Newydd, Hafod, in the 1960s.                         copyright Hafod Trust

Pont Newydd collapsed in the 1980s.                                  copyright Jennie Macve

But there is a recent history equally worthy of recall, perhaps especially in the light of Hafod’s heritage of the sublime.  Little could be more awesome than to fly over this unprotected chasm on a bicycle!  The photographic evidence is out there on the internet and can be reproduced here.

Olly Davey crossing Pont Newydd on a mountain bike

This dizzyingly dangerous feat recorded in colour was at least preceded by trial jumps with a safety net rigged across the gap. The rider was local boy Olly Davey, still living and still hurtling down mountains on bikes.  You grow up at Hafod – you make your own entertainment!

The adrenaline rush for the rider or spectator is surely the very essence of the sublime experience.  Young men have always been fascinated by the possibilities of leaping chasms.   I was brought up in Yorkshire where the best known legend concerned the Strid on the river Wharfe, where a 12th century  youth, the Boy of Egremont, accustomed to leaping a pinch point on the gorge, failed to let his hound off the lead causing both to fall to their deaths.  Many a chasm has a similar oral tradition.

Health and Safety considerations have led the long jump to be confined to more prosaic environments these days.  Indeed even the reconstruction of the bridge involved a quantity of scaffolding which would have astounded the former bridge builders.

The new footbridge under construction at Pont Newydd

I am indebted to Jez Young, (who worked on the new bridge and recorded the details of progress on the  building work in an excellent blog on Facebook), for drawing these historic images to light.  They are, rightly, part of the history of Hafod.  We shall not see such a feat here again.

The the footbridge span at Pont Newydd, Hafod                                     Copyright Jez Young

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Some puzzling pictures of Hafod

by the Curious Scribbler

Scholars of Hafod are always pleased when a new image of this lost house comes to light. The latest to do so is a painting by the celebrated artist John Piper, who is well known for other sketches on the estate such as what appears to be the only pictoral representation of the Gothic arcade which overlooks the chain bridge over the Ystwyth Gorge.  The new picture has been found in plain sight, hanging on the wall in St Cross College, Oxford.  The college has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here.

The Dead Tree, Hafod.  A watercolour of Hafod mansion by John Piper, now hanging in St Cross College Oxford

The caption on the mount reads ” The Dead Tree, Hafod”    I have spent much time puzzling over the picture.  Assuming it to be reasonably representational, the view is taken from a direction rarely seen in Hafod pictures.  ( Most images view the mansion from the parkland to the south east.)  Here the artist is apparently standing on the slope to the north east of the house.  Only from there would the Italianate campanile appear behind and to the right of the Octagon library.

There is an early 20th century photograph taken from the south west, on the other side of the valley which shows a similar juxtaposition from the opposite side.  But this enhances the confusion, for a broad two storey wing reaches out to the west of the campanile.  Viewed as Piper saw it, that wing just isn’t there.  Had it been demolished at the time of Piper’s sketch?

Hafod mansion from across the valley to the south.  Postcard by D.J. Davies, Lampeter.                        ( Peter Davis Collection)

No apparently not.  I am assured that Piper did not revisit after his sketching at Hafod in 1939, and that demolition did not commence until 1949 when the interior was stripped of all assets and the new Italianate wing was the first part to be pulled down. It must be assumed that Piper decided not to paint any of the structure to the right of the campanile.

Another relatively recent discovery is the earliest known picture of Hafod, a sketch made in the 1780s when Johnes’ dream was just taking shape.  This view from the east shows the new gothic styled  house by Thomas Baldwin of Bath welded onto the old tall-chimneyed farmhouse of the Herberts of Dolgors.  This picture, unnamed, had long languished in the archives of Cardiff University until it was spotted and identified by then graduate student and architectural historian Mark Baker.

The first known picture of Thomas Johnes’ Hafod. A Sketch by S Walker, circa 1780.            ( Cardiff University Archive)

The south east face of the Baldwin house with the three gothic windows above a  conservatory with gothic pavilions  can still be seen at the right hand end of the house in a steel engraving of around 1850, but this end is now dwarfed by the subsequent additions by the Duke of Newcastle and then Henry de Hoghton.  By these improvements they created the huge sprawling house which proved unviable for survival in the 20th century.

Steel engraving by Newman & Co, of around 1850.  Successive additions have grown to the left of Johnes’ original house.

What use would Hafod mansion be put to if it survived today?  It is hard to imagine, for Ceredigion remains far off the beaten track for flourishing stately homes.  Of our other big landed estates, Trawscoed mansion remains languishing in search of a new owner, and is increasingly spoiled by divided ownership, Plas Gogerddan survives as an embarrassment to the University beside the huge modern IBERS offices and greenhouses on the former walled garden, and only Nanteos, after much investment, is now making its living as a country house hotel.

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Penglais campus the destruction continues

by The Curious Scribbler

Early last month I lamented the loss of the shrub planting below the Hugh Owen building.  Never have I had so many readers, 1600 within 24 hours of posting, and the cries of anguish echoed far and wide.  But the destruction continues.  Gardening, according to the Aberystwyth Estates Department, is an activity best performed with a mechanical digger.

In the last two weeks whole shrub borders have scraped from the ground.  Adjoining the Student Welcome Centre were three trees, two phyllyrea and a griselinia, and a border of hydrangea, fuchsia, escallonia and evergreen olearia species.  Now only the trees remain. The border has been grubbed out entirely.   Viewed  from the Llandinam concourse there is little to see now, but an unkempt lawn with a circular bed containing a dead tree, and, beyond it, a large green painted metal box.

Recently uprooted border at the Penglais campus

The border on 7 October before its destruction

 

The border needed some weeding and maintenance it is true,  but it formed a handsome screen at the top of a concrete retaining wall outside the Llandinam building concourse.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Where the steps lead down towards the Cledwyn building, a broad swathe of  ground hugging cotoneaster and vinca on either side of the descent was badly invaded by brambles.  A gardener might have dug these out, or cut them and poisoned the stumps.   Instead a few hours with a digger have obliterated the lot, and the bramble roots will be the first to recover in the broken earth.

Formerly a bank clothed in prostrate and low growing cotoneaster?

Further down, the iconic view of the terracotta-coloured end of the Physical Sciences building is framed by some freshly mangled trees, chopped off at some 8 feet above ground.

Crude pruning of a group of mature shrubs

Border on the corner between  Biology and Physics on 7 October

A distorted, one-sided Myrtle, Luma apiculata reaching over to the left  (one of many seedlings on the campus), echoes the space formerly occupied by a large cotoneaster and a purple berberis beside it. This was all looking quite tidy as a group at the beginning of the month, though it adjoined a building site. Now the designed planting has been hacked away, and the accidental incomer has been preserved. It was the same below the Hugh Owen, where randomly spared trees include self seeded willow and ash.

There is some fine planting further up the slope on the terrace leading to the Physics entrance.  I wonder whether that will survive.

The triangular bed at the west end of the Biology building used to contain big evergreen daisy bushes Olearia avicenniifolia.  This tender New Zealand species first came to Tresco in the Scilly islands in 1914 and according to the RHS Plantfinder is available at just one nursery  in the UK today.   It’s gone.  But we get  a marvellously unimpeded view of the connecting glass corridor which seems function principally as a box store.

One of the uglier features of the Biology building is exposed to view

Adjoining the end of the building was a Crinodendron hookerianum, the Chilean Lantern Tree, approaching its mature height of 20 feet.  This slow-growing narrow tree dangles fleshy crimson flowers about an inch long from summer till autumn.  It has had its top cut off, though an adjoining dead tree cloaked in ivy has been spared.

Continuing down the road between the Sports building and Biological Sciences, the corner has been cleared to display a few stumps and a manhole cover. The metre-wide strip adjoining the road was cleared back a year ago and has been seeded with teasels and foxgloves which will look quite pretty next spring.  Not for long though.  Foxgloves are biennial, so the current crop will die next summer, and dock and creeping buttercup will take their place.  Soon we can call this teasel corner.

The corner between Biology and the the Sports Centre

There are shrubs on the campus so choice and rare that one would be hard pressed to find them anywhere else.  As a random illustration I include a picture of one of the  Australia acacias planted against the  Biology building.  It displays most elegant heterophylly.  The long leathery Mistletoe-like leaves are born on the same stems as the feathery new growth.  ( Students generally learn about heterophylly by studying water crowfoot.  How much more magnificent in a tree!)

Heterophylly in an Australian acacia

The hackers and diggers may be there soon too, destroying more botanical heritage.  There is also a Hoheria sexstylosa nearby, a rare Berberis and another rare daisy bush  Olearia rotundifolia flourishing far from its native habitat the southern alps of South Island, New Zealand. The list could go on.  But no-one making the decisions about the contractors’ actions seems to know or care about plants.  I doubt any future planting will be more than commonplace.

My final picture is of one of the recently completed works. An extensive border was removed  and bark chippings laid to frame these unattractive pipes and utility sheds beside an arterial path to the Student Welcome Centre.

The future gardening style for the Aberystwyth University campus

The is not the style for which the gardens were listed Grade II* by Cadw just fifteen years ago.

 

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The Llandygwydd Font

It is easy to overlook Llandygwydd, a cluster of Victorian cottages on a minor road off the A484 east of Llechryd in the Teifi valley.   Its graveyard contains members of some significant local families from the nearby gentry houses of Blaenpant, Penylan, Noyadd Trefawr and Stradmore.  But of the church there is now little trace except for its font, wreathed in brambles and standing incongruously in the open air.  This is of itself surprising.  Fonts are a bit of a problem for the church – it is generally unacceptable to re-use them as garden ornaments, and strictly speaking even the fragments of a broken font should be preserved within the church.  Thus it is more usual to see superfluous and disused fonts from demolished churches sitting in the porch of an extant church in the neighbourhood.

The font at Llandygwydd stands out of doors on the footprint of the nineteenth century church

The church which until 2000 gave it shelter was a Victorian one, built to a design by the high church architect RJ Withers, in 1856-7.  Its fortunes, from construction to demolition have been recorded in detail by Gwynfor Rees in the journal Ceredigion Vol. XIV, no 4, 2004.    The local gentry, especially the Webley Parrys of Noyadd Trefawr and the Brigstockes of Blaenpant were staunchly Anglican at a time when  Nonconformism was growing among the local people, and it was felt important that the  existing parish church,(a humble structure built in 1804 to replace a late medieval one on the same site), should be replaced by a structure of Victorian splendour, commensurate with the fashionable style of the neighbouring recently-enlarged mansions. It is recorded that the little ‘calling bell’ dedicated to St Peter, and the font, both of 15th Century origin, were incorporated into the new church. Most uncharacteristically for these parts, it was to boast a tower on the south side, surmounted by a tall timber steeple.

Over the following  years the gentry families vied in endowing stained glass windows, an ornate reredos, a Caen stone and granite pulpit, and installed commemorative plaques recording their largesse.  The church was said to have some of the finest stained glass in the county.  In 1891 five new bells donated by the Webley Parry family of Noyadd Trefawr and  Maria Brigstocke of Blaenpant in commemoration of the marriage of her niece joined the old bell from the former church.

Maria Brigstocke stands in the centre behind the five new bells. On the left side of the picture is the old bell dedicated to St Peter, from the original medieval church. see  Ceredigion Archive

Sadly this impressive church had been built at ‘an extraordinarily cheap rate’ and proved structurally unsound, the timber  steeple warped and bent, and the tower, set on insufficient foundations, cracked alarmingly.  Within  twenty years it was deemed unsafe to ring the bells lest masonry fall from the edifice, and a survey by church architects Caroe and Passmore in 1913 predicted that the bent spire might collapse onto the chancel at any time.  That year the spire was removed, and the tower strengthened, but to no avail. In 1978, after several structural reports, the bells were sold to the foundry which produced them and in 1980 the entire tower was taken down.

The church was de-consecrated and demolished in 2000, leaving its foundations and some mature yew trees among the graves. In situ inside what was once the south door, stands the font.

It might be speculated that at the time of demolition the Llandygwydd font was perceived as mid-Victorian, of no great historic importance and therefore allowed to stand as a landmark in the footprint of the church.  But closer inspection reveals this to be far from the truth.  This is a large medieval font carved out of Dundry stone from near Bristol, a source of good carve-able stone which was worked out by the sixteenth century.  It is in the perpendicular style, with an octagonal base and bowl carved with a repeating four-leaved relief.  But Mr Withers and his masons have embellished it.  They sliced it into three horizontal layers and re-assembled them like a club sandwich with a narrow layer of oolitic limestone from Painswick  between each.  At the same time they repaired, as is common in old fonts, the various damages to the rim and stem with inset pieces of Painswick stone, quite different from the original Dundry.  Resplendently reassembled and about four inches taller, it would have had a fashionably polychromatic appearance, with the yellow-brown Dundry stone layered sandwich style with white oolite.

A later repair to the rim of the font

Today, forlorn and exposed to the weather, the newer courses of Painswick stone are badly weathered, and some of the inset repairs are falling out.  Chunks are crumbling away from the Dundry stone stem.  Moss and lichen colonize the surfaces, but as a further reminder of its antiquity, the close observer will find two daisy wheel patterns (a common medieval graffiti) lightly engraved upon the bowl.

The layers of Paiswick stone have weathered away to leave deep grooves.  To the left of the four leaf carving are two daisy wheel compass-scored devices on the medieval stone

I am intrigued at these devices.  The expert belief is that they are symbols to ward off witches or the devil.  They are very commonly found on fonts and the doorway arch or porch of ancient churches, though they may be found in more remote parts of the building too.  The six petal form is easy to scratch with a compass or perhaps a pair of shears.  You just score a circle, and then with one point on the circumference draw an arc within the circle  till it touches the circumference again.  Then move the point to the  intersection of  arc and circle and repeat.  Soon six neat petals are inscribed within the circle.

The daisy wheel design

They are lightly scratched, not typical of serious masons’ work and anyone could have done them.  I do wonder though whether the evidence for their role in repelling witches is a modern over-interpretation of past behaviour.

Equipped with a geometry set we all used to draw this device on our schoolbooks, because we could, and because without any great skill we could produce perfect symmetry.  When bored we often coloured them in too.  Will future historians conclude that 20th century schoolchildren all worked to repel the forces of evil during geometry lessons?  The scholarly name for these devices  on medieval structures is apotropaic graffiti.    But for me and my schoolfriends the same images were meaningless, but very satisfying,  doodles.

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Storm Ophelia

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. The stone jetty north of Tanybwlch beach

by The Curious Scribbler

There are few more invigorating spots than Tanybwlch beach during a powerful storm.  There is the rattling cascade of huge pebbles sucked back and hurled again against the shore, the huge grey brown rollers trailing spume, and the explosive crash of the waves against the concrete jetty which protects the harbour from the south.

At high tide yesterday, at 5.30pm Ophelia was at its height, and  the huge waves broke relentlessly along its length, an unbroken sheet of foamy water flowing across the jetty and cascading into relative calm on the other side.  Even more spectacular was the backwash where a huge wave rebounding from the jetty side would travel southward until it collided with the next huge roller coming in.  Then an explosion of disordered water flies high into the grey sky.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Water streams over the stone jetty

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Waves collide as they rebound from the stone jetty

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Another wave rebounds against a new one

Meanwhile high tide held back the outflow of the Ystwyth, ( which is tidal until the corner where Nanny Goats Walk sets off inland) and the water backed up to flood the grass and  lower path along the riverside.  Standing on the Pen-yr-anchor bridge  the gale hit one with ferocious force, coming directly along the overflowing river, rippled to wavelets by the wind.

Storm Ophelia. The Ystwyth river backs up at high tide

Further south along the curving storm beach the waves rush up, loaded with sand and pebbles, and pour over into the Ystwyth river behind it.  Little wonder that the Tanybwlch flats have not been earmarked for further sea defences by the Environment Agency (now NRW).  At the foot of Alltwen the pasture is returning, not for the first time, to salt marsh and standing water.

There were a dozen or more of us, and several dogs on the top of the strand, teetering in the gusts and watching, filming or photographing the scene.  The green and white pillar on the end regularly disappeared from view.  Incautious cars could be seen driving out onto the wooden jetty on the far side of the harbour,  spray suddenly engulfing them, and a small blue and white motor boat, tethered to the jetty listed and slowly sank under the onslaught.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Waves break over the stone jetty

I then went to the main Aberystwyth promenade, where the full force of the south wind was less, but the waves crashed satisfyingly on the sea wall, sending a sheet of sand and water over the prom.  Spectacular explosions of spray engulfed the public shelter on Bath rocks,  which was only recently restored after an even more severe pummeling by Storm Frank  in 2014.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Spray engulfs the Victorian Shelter

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth, water streams over the prom

Further north the waves shot directly skyward in front of Alexandra Hall.  I have seen them burst higher in other storms, but there is a little buttress on the promenade near there which always attracts the dare devils waiting to run back from a soaking from the even more exceptional wave.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Taking selfies in the storm

It was a bit of a party atmosphere all along the prom, as people walked, dodged the overflowing waves and took photos on their phones.   A person in a motility scooter bowled gaily along the prom with a following wind behind it.  I would have been a bit fearful in so light a vehicle with the wind resistance of its hood.  These are the circumstances when buggies and prams readily escape their owners.

If there is one species entirely unimpressed by the 70mph gusts it is the starling.  Autumn is setting in and the big traditional roost is filling up under the Pier.  Without any apparent difficulty the flocks cruised in at dusk, jinking in perfect synchrony to form strands and ovoids in the sky before diving down to roost on the ironwork under the deck.  They came in smaller groups  of one to two hundred birds, and perhaps dived to safety sooner than on a calm evening.  But while few gulls flew in the wild winds, these little birds carried on as if the evening was entirely unremarkable.

Storm Ophelia Aberystwyth. Huge waves approach  north beach

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What has become of the Penglais campus?

by the Curious Scribbler

It seems to be a little known fact that the Penglais campus, in conjunction with the adjoining sites of the Llanbadarn campus and the National Library of Wales are listed Grade II* in the Cadw Register of Landscapes, Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in Wales.  This is praise indeed, this grading makes it one of the three most important gardens in Ceredigion, and one of the very few 20th century landscapes deemed of national importance.  The listing was published in 2003.  The inspector summarizes it thus:

The landscaping of the University of Aberystwyth campuses, particularly the earlier Penglais campus is of exceptional historic interest as one of the most important modern landscaping schemes in wales. The sophisticated layout, including the landscaping, is sensitive to the character of the site, and the planting, which is unusually choice and varied both enhances the buildings and helps to integrate the the sites.  Several densely packed pages describe the grounds and their plantings in detail, and the steep bank below the Hugh Owen library gains especial praise.

It was indeed justified, and I have dug out a photo from 2003 which shows the clean lines of the modern building embraced by a swathe of shrubs, hebes, fuchsias and the ground-hugging Cotoneaster microphyllus clothing the steep banks. (The red flowered shrub was Embothrium coccineum, the Chilean Firebush, a connoisseur’s tree, frost hardy and fussy about its soil, cleverly planted by knowledgeable gardeners).

The Hugh Owen building, Penglais Campus, Aberystwyth with original planting in 2003

All gone now!  Last month contract gardeners with a caterpillar digger were hard at work and today’s view is of turf, bark and a few retained trees, some of them self-seeded ash.

The Hugh Owen Building, Penglais Campus, Aberystwyth in 2017

There have been maintenance problems at the campus in the last decade, and regular visitors have noted the vigorous incursions of brambles, sycamores and ash trees, self seeded amongst the shrubs.  Back in the 1990s when I sometimes visited head gardener John Corfield in his potting shed I would find up to nine gardeners, who together tended the Penglais campus and the mansion gardens and botanical order beds on the other side of the road.  Today his successor, gardener Paul Evans is responsible for three campuses, Penglais, Llanbadarn and Gogerddan with a team half the size!  Little wonder that the brambles got away..

Bit by bit the character of  Aberystwyth’s distinctive campus is being whittled away, while new 21st century innovations have been introduced with no provision for aftercare.  The new IBERS building next to the Edward Llwyd is a case in point.  Its landscape architect included a green wall, a complicated beech maze and a sedum roof.  The green wall died and has been cleared away, and the maze was never pruned and became an interlocking thicket of beech trees.  The roof gets rare maintenance by contract gardeners, because none of the grounds staff have received training for working of roof tops.

The beech maze beside the new IBERS building on the Penglais campus

And the agenda of Biodiversity and Native Species has led to a tendency to ignore the merits of a garden which brings together beautiful non-native plants from all over the world.  For some odd reason ecologists seem to assume that only native species are agreeable to bees.  How wrong!  Recent research at the National Botanic Garden of Wales analysing the DNA fingerprint of pollen in the pouches of honey bees showed that two of the top six favourites are the despised sycamore and the invasive Himalayan Balsam!

The 1960-1970s planting of the campus was supervised by botanists and involved the trialing of species and hybrids suited to windswept maritime situations from every continent.  Many still survive in gardens around Aberystwyth.  But is the campus on a trajectory to turf, bark and the utility planting of an average supermarket carpark?

And what about the street furniture?  Back in 2003 it seems that students found their way around without notice boards or banners telling them how happy and lucky they were, and motorists kept left and slow without constant reminders.  Certainly the elegance of the first picture is in stark contrast to the tired building in the second, grey with age but  cleaner at the base where the shrubs formerly embraced it.

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A new era for Strata Florida

by The Curious Scribbler

Strata Florida Abbey

The west door,Strata Florida Abbey copyright John Ball http:                                 //www.jlb2011.co.uk/walespic/archive/990502.htm

 

Strata Florida, at the end of the side road out of Pontrhydfendigaid is possibly one of the least-visited Cadw sites in Wales.

On a normal day, one or two  visitors may be seen passing under the remaining arched romanesque west doorway of the Cistercian abbey church, and perhaps pausing to read the huge memorial slab reminding of us of the traditional belief  that the 14th century poet Dafydd ap Gwilim was buried here under a great yew tree in the graveyard.  Others come  to the adjoining parish church in search of a more recent grave marking the burial in 1756 of a severed leg, and part of the thigh, of  Henry Hughes, who was a cooper by trade.  What accident with an axe, or perhaps a great metal hoop led to this misadventure?  I have read that it was survivable and that the rest of this man was laid to rest in America.  Come the resurrection he would have believed in, his leg and the rest of his body would presumably be reunited over the Atlantic.

This weekend though were two most extraordinary days, in which the field was thronged with vehicles, tents and a marquee, and bands of enthusiasts of all ages gathered in the church for lectures or for tours of the abbey site, the adjoining  farm buildings and the wider landscape.  Just an echo perhaps of the daily bustle of the 12th century when Strata Florida Abbey controlled vast tracts of land, productive of farm produce, timber and minerals.  The event marked the launch of the Strata Florida Project, a concept which has been a twinkle in the eye of Professor David Austin for a couple of decades but now seems set to burst upon the world.

On Saturday morning he was surrounded by a densely packed throng of umbrellas as he explained the importance of the site.  Size alone of the excavated ground plan  shows that it had been a huge monastery, larger indeed than the famed Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire. Professor Austin explained the basis to believe that the abbey church was erected on a preexisting Christian site, and how the ambiguous structure in the centre of the nave floor, which is not quite correctly aligned with the axis of the church, is interpreted as a holy well incorporated, perhaps to honour older beliefs,  when the Cistercians set up a new house in this part of Wales.  The abbey enjoyed the patronage of the Welsh prince Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, and there are clues in the sources of the carved building stones, and in the celtic motifs on the west doorway that local Welsh tradition was not entirely subjugated by the incomers.

On Sunday a lecture by Prof Dafydd Johnston revealed a sense of the grandeur of these medieval buildings, and of the hospitality they offered.  The peripatetic poets of the day wrote praise poems to their hosts, abbots and fine landed  gentlemen, listing their assets, their buildings, farmlands, gardens, wives, offspring, fine food and general generosity.  The picture emerges of soaring oak beams on stone arches, stained glass windows,  a gleaming white tower, and lead so abundant it is described as encasing the church like armour.  These poets were quite literally singing for their supper, and may have exaggerated, but they are a good historical source, perhaps far better than the more introspective utterances of poets today.  In the early 15th century the abbey (which probably did supported Glyndwr’s rebellion) took severe punishment from the English army, who stabled their horses in the Abbey Church.  Abbot Rhys ap Dafydd  is praised for repairing the handsome refectory, and his successor Abbot Morgan for the beauty of the place.

We all know that Henry VIII brought the abbeys, quite literally, crashing down.  The lucky recipients of this redistributed land and buildings were often given  just a year to effectively destroy the monastic structures, perhaps adapting some parts of it for domestic use. Gentry houses thus emerged amongst the ruins.  At Mottisfont Abbey in Hampshire which I visited last week, the nave became  a long gallery, the core of a new gentry residence.  Here the great church was largely demolished and cleared away, built into walls and vernacular buildings for miles around, while the refectory became the basis of the 18th century farmhouse Mynachlog Fawr ( or the Stedman House) as it appears in the Buck print of Strata Florida in 1742, and still stands today.

Mynachlog Fawr  2011.   copyright Paul White
http://www.welshruins.co.uk/photo8244988.html

That farm has a story of its own, the last 150 years in the ownership of the Arch family of farmers.  Charles Arch, a cherubic octogenarian known to millions as  the announcer voice of the Royal Welsh Show treated a packed church to an elegaic description of his childhood growing up at the farm, and how as errand boy for his mother he would run the one and a half miles to the village, or be hauled from his bed at night by the local doctor to act as gate-opener for a house call to  distant cottages up the gated road across their land.  Most of the audience felt the tears well up as he described how as a young man he realised that the farm could not support three families and elected to seek his living elsewhere.  ” The day I sold the pony, and did away with my dogs – was the saddest day of my life”.  His brother’s family still farm the land, and since the 1970s have occupied a comfortable bungalow not far behind the old house.  With extraordinary patience the Arch family have waited and waited for Strata Florida Project to gain momentum and purchase the old family home and its farm buildings.

Richard Suggett illustrated the importance of this fine old building, barely touched by electricity or indoor plumbing, and with many period features of the 1720s.  There is a paneled parlour on one side of the front door and farm kitchen on the other, in which Charles recollects the bacon hanging from the ceiling and as many as 25 neighbours dining on Friday nights.  The parlour still has its buffet cupboard next to the fireplace (an antecedent of the china display cabinet) an  acanthus frieze painted on the ceiling above the coving, and a frightful didactic overmantle painting on wood above the fireplace.  It depicts youth choosing between the paths of virtue and vice:  the former rather staid and dull, the latter really nasty.  Charles found it chilling as a child.

The Strata Florida Project aspires to restore and interpret all these layers of history and the wider landscape it inhabits.  It reaches out to incorporate into the story every possible Welsh icon:  The Nanteos cup: claimed to have arrived there via Strata Florida Abbey, the White Book of Rhydderch:  possibly transcribed in the scriptorium of Strata Florida,  poet Dafydd ap Gwilim: putatively educated by the monks of Strata Florida.  This quiet backwater may soon become  a hub of historical and modern Welsh culture.

Sunday closed with a procession from the parish church to the putative holy well in the abbey nave led by Father Brian O’Malley, a former Cistercian monk who had yesterday enlightened us with an account of the daily routine of  Cistercian prayer.

Father Brian O’Malley leads the procession.
Photo copyright Tom Hutter

And displayed for the day in the adjoining ruined chantry chapel was the Nanteos Cup, on loan to its former home, courtesy of Mrs Mirylees the last inheritor of the Nanteos estate, who was also present with her daughter.  For those with a spiritual bent it was an evocative day.

Prayers at the putative Holy Well
Copyright Tom Hutter

For the rest there was costumed historic re-enactment, archery, pole lathe wood-turning, refreshments, stalls and much besides.

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Pine martens at Hafod

by The Curious Scribbler

Iolo Williams addresses the Vincent Wildlife Trust’s guests in the Hafod car park

About eighty people gathered yesterday in the car park beside Hafod Church to witness the unveiling,  by Wales’ premier TV naturalist Iolo Williams, of a curious sculpture. Its designation plaque, as a memorial to Rob Strachan  ‘an inspirational naturalist and conservationist’ might make one wonder whether it would not be more appropriately placed inside the churchyard wall.  However it has perhaps a wider purpose, for it was installed by the Vincent Wildlife Trust whose project is the reintroduction of pine martens into NRW ( National Resources Wales, fomerly the Forestry Commission) woodlands in Wales.  A pine marten and two kits are represented on the sculpture by Grace Young Monaghan.  It is carved from an oak trunk sourced from the estate, though puzzlingly the trunk has been adzed to resemble no British tree. Call me a pedant, but I find this jarring.  Four oak leaves are represented, like a label on the trunk, but why is its bark represented with horizontal rather than vertical fissures?  Has it been attacked by a giant beaver?

Pine marten sculpture in Hafod car park

Project Officer Dave Bavin , his dog, and Iolo Williams pose beside the sculpture

The effigy may serve though to alert visitors to the estate to the slim possibility of glimpsing one of these elegant mustelids in the woods.  In the last two Septembers 39 Scottish pine martens have been trapped, driven by air-conditioned van from Scotland, and penned and then released at Hafod.  Although most of the first batch of introductions in 2015 dispersed or died, one female from this group has produced kits at Hafod, conceived and born this year, and several of last September’s shipment, who will have arrived pregnant, have successfully produced young  this spring.  Most have spurned the man-made box dens provided for them near the release sites, and have instead sought out dens of their own choosing.

Martens are solitary and occupy large territories, so I wondered how the researchers on the project keep tabs upon the animals. I learned that the privacy of these pioneer pine martens is considerably compromised.  First of all, each immigrant is DNA profiled by a lab in Ireland before release.  Fitted out wearing radio collars their presence can be monitored by a volunteer sitting in their car on the forest drives or strolling the woods with a receiver like a TV aerial.  Thus the approximate location can be determined without need of a visual sighting.  Some of the first batch of Hafod-released animals were disinclined to remain and were  found far, far away.  One female eventually settled near Abergele!  Recently, the Vincent Wildlife Trust has also had success with GPS transmitters which can provide researchers with accurate location from much further away.

The martens are also monitored by motion sensitive cameras in the woods.  Now it might seem one would have to wait a long time to see a marten stroll by, but the odds are considerably enhanced by putting out bait.  Martens proved particularly partial to jam sandwiches and peanut butter, and will return regularly to a bait site in front of the camera in order to check whether it has been replenished.  One mother’s successful breeding was revealed when she led her kits into camera range to join the feast.  The same inducements work well to lure the martens into traps so that their health can be monitored, or, before the battery runs out, their collars can be removed or replaced.

DNA technology given further insights.  A fresh scat ( droppings) can reveal the DNA profile of the perpetrator.  Since all the introduced martens have been profiled, a poo sample can even reveal the parentage of a new kit.  For long, the analysis of droppings has been a valuable tool in discovering the dietary preferences of mammals.  To this, modern mammologists can now add the identity and geneaology of the marten who dealt it!

Just the sort of tree hole to appeal to a pine marten

I was impressed by the youth and enthusiasm of the Vincent Wildlife Trust researchers and volunteers who gathered for this celebration.  But even for them, equipped with 21st century tracking technology, the best sightings of these elusive animals are probably those from the daylight and night-vision remote cameras. Some of the highlights of camera trap photography can be found among Vincent Wildlife Trust uploads on vimeo.  Scat is a little easier to find, because martens typically deposit it in prominent positions, on paths or on an eminence like a tree stump.

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Country house jumble sale at Brynmerheryn

by The Curious Scribbler

Some remarkable people turn up in Ceredigion from the wider world.  Two such were Nicholas Luard and his wife Elisabeth, who came to Brynmerheryn, an oddly handsome house set in some 100 acres high above Tregaron Bog.   The house already had an eccentric history as the home of Monica Rawlins, friend and former student of the artist Augustus John, who bought it in the 1940s.

Brynmerheryn, Ystrad Meurig

Brynmerheryn, Ystrad Meurig

Nicholas Luard was a notable figure in the irreverent 1960s,  a new Cambridge graduate,  founder of Private Eye, and co-owner with Peter Cook of The Establishment Club in Soho, which launched the careers of so many distinguished members of Beyond the Fringe.  His subsequent career as writer, aspirant politician, philanderer, entrepreneur and alcoholic was more glamorous  than remunerative, and throughout all its permutations was shored up by the indefatigable industry of his wife Elisabeth, cookery writer, novelist, botanical illustrator,  and mother of his four children.  Her 2008 book, My Life as a Wife, gives a spirited account of these vicissitudes, never tarnished by a trace of the fashionable self pity of so many modern memoires.

It was Nicholas’ charm and charisma which eventually brought them to Wales in 1992, when he was left Brynmerheryn in Monica Rawlins’ will.  Understandably eyebrows were raised locally at this bequest, for Monica was not, as is often said, his godmother, but the godmother of another Elizabeth, a girlfriend of his undergraduate days, who had taken him to visit her.  With a talent for people, Nicholas kept in touch with Monica during the following 40 years, and no doubt she felt that the house deserved them. Monica herself was a distinctive character, whose diaries, much preoccupied with eugenics in her goose farming activities and with visits from her nephew,  were recently adapted by Bethan Roberts for the Radio 4 drama Writing the Century: The View from the Windows. Monica’s voice though, seems to have had a more plaintive tone.  Elisabeth Luard rises gutsily to every challenge.

The latest is to leave Brynmerheryn and its accumulated memories.  Nicholas died in 2004, and she is now leaving for a much smaller home in London, nearer to her children, and to the media opportunities her foodie expertise still commands.

Elisabeth Luard amongst her possessions

Elisabeth Luard amongst some of  her possessions

Winter sitting room

Winter sitting room

On Saturday 22 April there will be a sort of jumble sale at Brynmerheryn,  to disperse the accumulations of Luard and Rawlins aquisitions over the past century and more. Elisabeth writes “It ranges from elegant clothing from the 1890’s through crockery from Syston Park near Bath where Monica grew up, woodcut blocks, linen, Welsh blankets, patchwork and items from the house including artists’ materials and children’s books from the 1900’s right through to my own wardrobe from the 1960’s and  pots, pans, crockery and glassware that I can’t take with me to my new abode.” 

There may even be a few bits of Hafod mansion, (for in Monica’s day almost everyone of note in the area  got a souvenir or two as the old mansion was stripped).  I do recollect a rather battered ornate gilded pelmet board above one window, and two massive carved oak consoles ( tall corbels) incongruous with the rest of the decor,  but these of course are fixtures and fittings and will doubtless go to the new owners, who I hope will relish the layers of character of their new home.

Carved and gilded pelmet board, possibly originally made for Hafod

Carved and gilded pelmet board, possibly originally made for Hafod

Massive carved consoles support a modern archway in the hall

Massive carved consoles support a modern archway in the hall

I shall be sorry not to be there, but am already committed to the Ceredigion Local History Forum, whose spring meeting on  Mansions & their Estates in Ceredigion occurs on the same day.

I'm sure there will be some nice flowerpots and things

I’m sure there will be some nice flowerpots and things

For directions and details on Facebook click here .

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The romance of dereliction

By The Curious Scribbler

Derelict buildings are invariably poignant, but particularly so when they retain the traces of domestic life, a palimpsest of their past occupants.

When I first moved to Wales and explored my neighbourhood I happened upon an isolated farm, Pengraig Draw up a stony track near the coast.  At some time,  years before, the entire end of the farmhouse had collapsed outwards, and there it stood, like a dolls house open to the elements.  The upstairs bedroom was still furnished with bed, chest of drawers and a old chaise longue, but the collapsed stairs and dangerously sloping floor prevented access.   The scene was reminiscent of  wartime bomb damage in the immediacy with which the the disaster must have occurred. It remain in this condition for many years, the furniture weathered by the rain.  Only quite recently was the old house rescued and renovated.  The end wall is now rebuilt and it is a tidy holiday letting property with a conservatory extension, and even a hot tub in the garden.  The romance of dereliction is but a memory.

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage

Pengraig Draw, now a lavishly renewed holiday cottage.  The end wall in this view lay collapsed for many years in the 1980s. http://www.aberystwythholidaycottages.co.uk/pengraig-draw-farmhouse/

A far more celebrated ruin is that of Thomas Johnes’ Hafod,  which was eventually dynamited by the Forestry Commission in 1957.  In fairness to the apparent vandalism of destroying an architectural gem,  it was, by this time in a sadly neglected state.  The last owner to live there, master builder and timber merchant W.G. Tarrant had died suddenly on Aberystwyth railway station in 1942 and  subsequent owners, also timber merchants did not live there, but stripped out everything of value for salvage sale.  There are bits and pieces of Hafod in houses and cottages all around the neighbourhood, purchased or scavenged in the last days of the house.

It is evocative then, to see photographs taken in 1957 by Edwin Smith, shortly before, or during,  the destruction of the house,  which are in the RIBA collections. The large and never-occupied Italianate wing built in the late 1840s by Anthony Salvin for the then owner Henry de Hoghton, is already a pile of rubble.

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, viewed from the southeast, partially demolished in 1957.  The Italianate wing is already destroyed.                                                                       Photo: Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod, the facade of the house built by Thomas Baldwin of Bath for Thomas Johnes  in 1788. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Most poignant of all is a view of the interior showing the ravages of pre-demolition  salvage. A handsome fireplace has been prised from the chimney breast, the Georgian door and door frame have been ripped out, some wooden shutters are propped across the doorway.  Yet above the former fireplace still hangs a large  oil painting of a landscape in a lavish gilt frame. The huge rip in the canvas explains its insignificance at this time. Though it would be romantic to think otherwise, the picture almost certainly was not a piece of Johnes’s property, more probably it was one of the fixtures belonging to the last serious owner, T.J. Waddingham who died age 98 in 1938.   But one still shudders to see it, not decently tidied away before the final destruction was commenced, but hanging on the wall as a reproach for all the misfortune which befell the house.

In the derelict Hafod mansion Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

In the derelict Hafod mansion, a damaged oil painting still hangs on the wall in 1957               Photo Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

Also in the collection are pictures of the architectural splendours now lost, including a detail of the domed roof the ante room to the side of the Octagon library, now ruptured  to the sky.

A view through the roof of the octagon library. Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod.  A view through the roof of the ante room adjoining octagon library.                                                                    Photo:       Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

Hafod. The garden terrace had been long neglected by 1957                                            Photo:Edwin Smith / RIBA Collections

 

The decaying steps leading from the former lawn, the broken windows and rubble of plaster on the floor are perhaps the best evidence that by 1957 Hafod was indeed very far gone.  Today the rubble is overgrown by trees.  Only the cellar remains, with a crust of broken wine bottles scattered below the wine racks, and a slew of rubble blocking the cellar steps.  A few years ago it was briefly possible to walk along these damp subterranean corridors, but the only inhabitants are bats and the makeshift entrance is barred by a sturdy gate to prevent risk to unwary explorers.

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the Hafod cellars 2006

In the case of Pengraig Draw, the past has been totally obliterated by modernity.  At Hafod it remains hauntingly present.

 

 

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